Liliesleaf farm is to become a National Heritage Site By Steve Lebelo

4 February 2015

Liliesleaf farm has gained iconic status following the announcement by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Paul Mashatile that it is to become South Africa’s newest National Heritage site. The history of Liliesieaf farm is well known among professional historians and academics in a range of disciplines. But for historians and Tourism practitioners the farm is set to generate new discourses that can only enrich the narrative continuously constructed and reconstructed about the liberation struggle. This is particularly so in the light of upcoming centenary celebrations of the founding of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) renamed the African National Congress in 1923.

The mystery of Nelson Mandela’s missing Makarov pistol is providing added colour, excitement and most probably will inspire controversy, especially about the efficacy of the shift from peaceful forms of resistance to armed struggle. It is a matter of time before historians begin to see the missing pistol as an important piece of evidence in the discourse about the transition to armed struggle, without necessarily suggesting that it would have taken one Makarov pistol to overthrow the Apartheid government in 1963. However, if recent media reports were left unchallenged, Liliesleaf would have been the subject of a frenzied auction, with potential bidders aiming for the missing pistol and hoping its significance would escalate its market value.

The Mail Guardian reported in May this year that Liliesleaf farm was coming under the hammer on 12 May 2011. This claim elicited an angry response from Nicolas Wolpe, chief executive of Lilieslief Trust, denying the claim. It has since been established that it is not liliesleaf farm that was due to be auctioned.  A portion of Geengedacht, a bigger farm that Liliesleaf is a portion was expected come under the hammer on 12 May 2011. Expectations were that because of the possibility of finding the first Makarov automatic pistol in Umkhonto we Sizwe’s arsenal, the auction would attract deep-pocketed bidders locally and internationally.

Experts predicted that the Makarov pistol, if found, would fetch R22m. But the location of the pistol, in spite of leads given by Mandela and several searches has remained illusive. According to Wolpe, “Mandela had led his friend Arthur Goldreich to a remote part of the farm and proudly showed off his gun – before “slapping his wrist” when Goldreich tried to touch it, saying “this is mine!” Wolpe has made a search following Mandela’s directions to where the pistol could possibly be concealed to no avail. The hint that it was about fifty paces from the kitchen of the farmhouse yielded nothing.

Alistair Sparks, former editor of the Rand Daily Mail and a friend of Mandela was the second to be told of the location of the Makarov pistol. Sparks on the other hand was armed with a different sense of direction given to him by Mandela. According to him, “Mandela’s remark to him was that the gun was buried 20 paces – not 50 – from the kitchen. Recalling a spontaneous visit to the farm soon after Mandela’s release, Sparks said: “Looking to go 20 paces, he walked 10 and then bumped into the wall to a neighbour’s house. It was essentially ceremonial, but, to my knowledge, that may have been (Umkhonto we Sizwe’s) first weapon.”

It is now believed that the pistol may be buried in one of three plots adjacent to Liliesleaf Farm. One of these plots is said to be owned by a South African Pop Artist, JMaxx. The second location suspected to be the spot where the pistol was buried is owned by Al Leenstra, who has been keen on selling the property to the Liliesleaf Trust. Contrary to expectations, the auction of May 12 produced no takers for the auctioned portion of Geengedacht farm, and the search for the mystery pistol continues. Bidders who had thronged the auction floor went silent after the opening bid of R2m, a tenth of the estimated value of the gun if it is there, was announced.

After several attempts by the auctioneer to entice the crowd with the historic value of the property and the prospect of what lies underneath it, the hammer eventually fell without any offer. Owner Al Leenstra said he was disappointed with the result of the auction. Wolpe is forever optimistic about finding the gun. He said the existence of the gun was not in question.

“…we do know that the gun exists. We do know that it was given to him. We do know that he buried it because he said ‘we buried it.’ The question is, who are the ‘we’?” he said.

Whatever the outcome of the search for the pistol is, one thing seem certain: Liliesleaf farm is about to overtake the much visited Heritage sites: the Hector Peterson Memorial, Vilakazi Street, the Apartheid Museum and numerous other preferred destination in Johannesburg and Soweto. Located within touching distance of the Cradle of Humankind, Liliesleaf Farm is yet make waves as South Africa’s premier Tourist destination. On his whirlwind visit to South Africa recently, British Prime Minister David Cameron made certain that Liliesleaf Farm featured in his carefully selected itinerary.